The following comes from a Feb. 11 story by OC Catholic.

La Vang, Vietnam—  Heads bowed, pilgrims celebrated Mass at a small outdoor chapel at the Our Lady of La Vang Shrine in central Vietnam’s Quảng Trị Province. The shrine pays homage to a Marian vision shared by Catholics fleeing persecution. It is visited by more than 250,000 pilgrims each year. 

Among those gathering at the shrine was Roman Catholic Diocese of Orange Auxiliary Bishop Thanh Nguyen, a former farmer who fled his native Vietnam in 1979. The highest-ranking Vietnamese Catholic cleric in the U.S., Bishop Thanh Nguyen spent his one-year anniversary as auxiliary bishop visiting the shrine and celebrating Mass alongside Most Rev. Kevin Vann, Bishop of Orange.

Several hundred yards away a basilica is currently under construction. The original Our Lady of La Vang Church was destroyed in 1972 during the height of the Vietnam War.

During his homily during Mass, Bishop Thanh Nguyen recounted his own journey fleeing Vietnam. After suffering religious persecution, Bishop Thanh Nguyen, along with 26 members of his extended family, boarded a small motorboat and slipped out of Cam Ranh Bay headed for safety.

The family was soon engulfed by a violent tropical storm and spent 18 days at sea, several with no food or water. The family prayed the Rosary together each morning and evening. They all arrived safely in the Philippines. After ten months in a refugee camp, the family left for a new life in the U.S. 

Bishop Thanh Nguyen was ordained as a priest in 1991. Prior to being named auxiliary bishop in the Diocese of Orange, he served as pastorat St. Joseph parish in the Diocese of St. Augustine, Fla. 

The Diocese of Orange is the sister diocese of the Archdiocese of Hanoi. Orange County is home to the largest Vietnamese population outside Vietnam. “Our two communities share a strong spiritual connection,” Bishop Vann said.

The trip marked the third time Bishop Thanh Nguyen has travelled back to Vietnam since fleeing the country, and the first time he was able to travel inside the country freely as a priest and celebrate Mass. 

“I’m grateful for the opportunity to travel Vietnam, visit the Our Lady of La Vang shrine with other pilgrims and help strengthen the relationship between the Catholic communities in Orange County and Vietnam,” Bishop Thanh Nguyen said. “For the first time since I originally left Vietnam, it feels like I have returned home.”